Hazel Allan is the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2020 Fiction Winner. We caught up with her to discuss the winning work, Daft Cow (A True Story).
A: When did you begin writing Daft Cow? Where did you get the idea for the piece?
HA: As the title states (in parentheses), Daft Cow is based on a true story. The idea to develop it as a work of fiction came to me during Christmas 2019. I wanted to highlight that for many people, Christmas can amplify feelings of grief, loneliness and regret. My hope was to incorporate this message with something profound about the nature of female solidarity and the capacity for humans to heal themselves through helping others. Daft Cow was originally intended as a short script rather than short fiction, but Maggie’s internal monologue and depth of emotion worked better in prose form.
A: How many times did you draft the piece? How did it change in the process?
HA: I started with a pen and paper, something I still resort to in this age of technology. I used a mind map and character profiles to plan, and this process took a day or two before I was confident enough to start writing the story. Since Daft Cow was based on true events, the ending was already in place, so I worked backwards from there. The difficult part was how to deliver the twist in the most dramatic and emotionally affective way possible. Aside from screeds of handwritten notes, the story took around ten typed drafts to reach a point where I was happy with it as a piece of short fiction. It changed several times during that process. At first, I tried writing the story from both women’s point of view, flitting between their households and incorporating both their voices, but it soon became apparent this was Maggie’s story – so I settled on her as narrator. I made several attempts to write the events in real time, realising early on that the flashbacks and time jumps worked more effectively.
A: What’s the most important aspect of a short story for you?
HA: I am attracted to character-driven stories which err on the dark side. This applies to both reading and writing short stories. It’s important that a short story touches me in some way, perhaps in the form of a difficult lesson learned, a twist or a moral. I believe character should take priority over plot in short fiction and for that reason I choose to write my own from the heart, seeking out the most common elements of human experience and finding truths that people will recognise. Some of my favourite pieces of writing have great variations in mood; intertwining emotion with a sharp edge of dark humour. I’m partial to a good metaphor, and enjoy stories which appears on the surface to be quite simple, but are in fact deeply allegorical.
A: Are there set principles that you apply for every piece or does it change depending on the story?
HA: Whenever I have an idea, I scribble it down, trying not to dwell too much on whether there is enough plot or pace and choosing to focus instead on human dynamics and emotion. Quite often I will write a few pages of dialogue only. This provides a framework upon which to hang my story. When I think of any piece of work I’ve ever written, whether it be a script, a poem, or prose, I have instinctively started with a character and worked outwards from there. Even with my children’s books, which are fast-paced adventure novels, the fundamental story is very much character driven.
A: What writers are you most inspired by?
HA: Bernard MacLaverty and Janice Galloway for their short fiction, Norman MacCaig for his poetry, and Jimmy McGovern for his television writing.
A: For you, what role do awards play in the career of a writer?
HA: I’ve been fortunate enough to have been shortlisted for several competitions. The recognition that comes from that has been immensely inspiring and motivating to my writing career. Adding these achievements to my writing CV has worked wonders with providing an insight into the type of writer I am and where my interests lie. This is a tough industry. The elusive prize of getting a commission always seems out of reach, but with every shortlist and every win I feel closer to achieving what I have always believed is possible. It feels such a risk to send work out into the big, wide world to be dissected and, more often than not, rejected. For complete strangers to read my words — especially deeply personal ones — and to acknowledge them positively… well, it feels like winning the lottery! People in this industry appreciate the level of work and bravery it takes to win an award. This recognition has not only boosted my self-confidence but has also galvanised my determination to work hard and put myself out there.
A: What does it mean to win the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award?
HA: In 2016, I decided to take time away from writing novels and focus on the entirely different, yet equally challenging, discipline of screenwriting. After completing a Masters in screenwriting in 2018 I believed I had exhausted what I had to offer the world of writing. Daft Cow was my first, tentative step back into short fiction so it means the world for it to be recognised in this way. Winning (I can’t quite believe I’m saying that!) the prestigious Aesthetica Creative Writing Award has given me the motivation to pursue other writing projects that were hanging in the balance. I now have a newfound confidence to explore where I might like to develop my writing in the future. I am immensely impressed by the other shortlisted writers and I feel proud and honoured to be printed alongside them.
A: What projects do you have planned for 2021? What are you working on?
HA: My most ambitious plan for 2021 is to start the process of adapting my children’s books for the screen. I would also like to polish and pitch my feature film screenplay, which I wrote during my screenwriting Masters. I have a file of half-finished poems and short stories which I now feel ready to delve into, dust off and breathe life back into.
Follow Hazel: @authorofbree
Image: Christopher Stott.